Exclusive Excerpt from Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody

Thank you to Phyllis Chesler for providing this excerpt of her newly updated book “Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody.” Find more information about Chesler and the book at the end of this post.

Myths about custody still abound. Most people still believe that the courts favor mothers over fathers—who are discriminated against because they are men—and that is how it’s always been.

This is not true.

In the first edition of Mothers on Trial, I challenged the myth that fit mothers always win custody—indeed, I found that when fathers fight, they win custody 70 percent of the time, whether or not they have been absent or violent.

Although the majority of custodial parents are usually mothers, this doesn’t mean that mothers have won their children in a battle. Rather, mothers often retain custody when fathers choose not to fight for it. Those fathers who fight tend to win custody, not because mothers are unfit or because fathers have been the primary caretakers of their children but because mothers are women and are held to a much higher standard of parenting.

Many judges also assume that the father who fights for custody is rare and therefore should be rewarded for loving his children, or they assume that something is wrong with the mother.

An ideal father is expected to legally acknowledge and economically support his children. Fathers who do anything more for their children are often seen as “better” than mothers, who are, after all, supposed to do everything.

The ideal of fatherhood is sacred. As such, it protects each father from the consequences of his actions. The ideal of motherhood is sacred, too. It exposes all mothers as imperfect. No human mother can embody the maternal idea perfectly enough.

Given so many double standards for fit mothering and fathering and so many anti-mother biases, I wanted to know: Could a “good enough” mother lose custody of a child to a relatively uninvolved or abusive father? How often could this happen?

To repeat: Seventy perfect of my “good enough” mothers lost custody of their children.

The 2011 Update

What’s changed?

Documented domestic violence does get factored in somewhat more than before. Where real assets exist, judges have the power to award more of them to mothers and children. Fewer mothers and fathers automatically lose custody or visitation because they are gay or have high-powered careers. However, certain injustices (crimes, really) that I first began tracking in the late 1970s have now gotten much worse e.g. mandatory joint custody even for wife batterers and child abusers; false accusations of parental alienation—a charge lodged mainly against mothers; incestuous fathers winning custody; lawsuits which last for 5-15 years which impoverish mainly mothers..

What Mothers Say

What to Do When a Custody Battle Invades Your Life

“First, take a deep breath and calm down. Save your strength for the long haul. Find out what all your options are. Find a therapist for some immediate support. Your lawyer cannot be your therapist.”

“No matter what happens, no matter what they say, never let any court official make you doubt you self-worth as mother.”

“Become very assertive about getting what you need from others, but depend only on yourself. You have the most to lose and the most to gain.”

Reprinted with permission from “Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody,” revised and updated 2nd edition by Phyllis Chesler. Text copyright 2011 Chicago Review Press. Published by Lawrence Hill Books, an imprint of Chicago Review Press (distributed by IPG). Available in bookstores and online, $18.95 US, $20.94 CAN.

Dr. Phyllis Chesler is Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies and the author of 14 books, including Women and Madness and Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman. She is a cofounder of the National Women’s Health Network and may be reached through her website, www.phyllis-chesler.com.


Melanie Mayo-Laakso


Melanie Mayo-Laakso is the Content Manager for Mothering.com. Mothering is the birthplace of natural family living and attachment parenting. We celebrate the experience of parenthood as worthy of one’s best efforts and are at once fierce advocates for children and gentle supporters of parents.

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